MUSEUM OF ABSENCES by LUIS H. FRANCIABARBARA JANE REYES reviews
Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia
(Meritage Press and University of the Philippines Press, 2004)
The structure of Luis H. Francia’s Museum of Absences is a body divided into three sections: “Dis/Appearances,” premised upon urban American alienation and anger, “Zero Ground,” the historical trauma, and “Meditations,” in which the poet subsequently directs himself inward in an effort to find comfort, perhaps resolution in the body of poetry. Certainly, Francia concerns himself deeply with the body, not only a biological body, but also a nation, cleaved into many parts. From “A Dictionary of the Vanishing”:
There is the archipelago of your torso,
Islands of blood and sinew, red against the blue,
Declaring their Independence of You
You have no thoughts
Your thoughts have you
You are not out of your body
Your body is out of you
Seceding into smaller republics.
And here is the crux of Francia’s work--individual and institutional acts of violence upon bodies, texts of dislocations and dissents. The strength of his work lies in this seemingly effortless metaphor making, and the apparent simplicity of the message and the poetic form he employs in the above poem excerpt--a body (human, nation) that is cleaved can neither be sustained nor sustain itself.
But let us first consider the bodies inhabiting this world which Francia presents in Museum’s first section, “Dis/Appearances.” To begin with “The Manong Chronicles,” Francia presents a premise of “foreign” bodies’ displacements and subsequent anger arising within the American urban center. But why the Manong, the historically West Coast based Pilipino laborer, who is rarely, if ever, associated with New York, when the place and time to which he is directing us (in Museum’s second section “Zero Ground”) is the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? And it is difficult to overlook this historical and geographical inconsistency, when the poems themselves exhibit inconsistencies of diction and form, in which even line breaks refuse to abide by semantic unit, strategic enjambment, nor breath. Word play, combined with an oftentimes flippant tone, “that clever leveller,” “my dog, my dog, / why have you forsaken me,” “Dog All Mighty,” the litany and irregular refrain in “Blue in the Face,” detract from a compassionate stance on the plight of the Manongs, and by extension, all the marginalized laborers who inhabit the American urban center. Specifically, the heavy-handed and abstract, academic diction of “The Manong Chronicles” --“though I was / Brown, the overpowering sense / Of negritude,” “Millennial colonial contradictions / The humanity of the subjugated,” “blue bureaucratic blottings / relegating letters,”--indicate this is not the voice of the Manong, however reflective and however learned, but a mediation by the poet.
Francia eventually attempts to set New York City as the central locale of Museum, and in this locale, the speaker appears undecided on his feelings for this American city, as his tone, while flippant, as above, is also both fed up and poetically distanced; it is not one of resignation, for we can detect an attempt at pointing out the absurdities and surreal qualities of urban living, as seen in the irreverent dog/god inversions in “dogless in manhattan,” and in the sadistic and grandiose vows and curses leveled against a landlord/slumlord in “A Request to My Landlord After a Suspicious Fire.”
Eroding the edges of the biting anger arising from displacement within the city, this anger which is premised in this “Dis/Appearances” section is “Ode to Jimi Hendrix,” comprised of generalized surface impressions, a glossing over of the African American rock and roll icon. This poem falls short of comprehending and communicating both the genre’s and the icon’s potent, proactively subversive American heart, opting instead for a classical, meandering Odysseus metaphor--a forlorn man in exile, at the mercy of the gods, their whimsy, their cruelty. A much more adept, apropos “use” of Hendrix and his importance to American dissent and rabid counter culture may be found in Jessica Hagedorn’s Gangster of Love, where, in the wake of the recently deceased Hendrix, Hagedorn’s protagonist stumbles and shoves her way into this gritty space and concept of America.
There is the well-weighted and formalistically and emotionally well-contained “Cinderella at Fifty,” which we may choose to read as a larger, bourgeois dream too good to be true, not unlike the broken promise of America to the once starry-eyed, once naïve now awakened immigrant. Still, Francia opts to distance himself and his speaker from the city’s seething masses of workers. He concludes this first section with “What Picasso and Gaugin Would Have Seen on the Seven Train,” which appears an urban twist on the conventional artist viewing the world from behind the safety of a window (à la Billy Collins, “the toast is in the toaster / and the poets are at their windows”). Here, it is the window of the train, this clichéd vein running throughout the body of the city--“the / Seven winds its way, iron artery / bearing the city’s red blood cells, each bearer of oxygen for the ceaseless muscles of a metropolis,” its population “an empire.” Here, we may be reminded of the broken bodies of Picasso’s Guernica: “bull’s head now a livid moon -- / dusk face, sun limb, flowers of // women’s bodies, reassembled, whole,” a foreshadowing for Museum’s second section, “Zero Ground.” We must question who of the workers riding the Seven would have access to the works of Picasso and Gaugin; we must also question whether Picasso would simply appropriate their art, and Gaugin sexualize and objectify them.
There is little engagement between the artist and his subject, for Francia presents a poetic itemizing of what he witnesses, and while he turns a critical eye to the reduction of the masses, the city’s laborers, to cells, his references to Moctezuma, Crazy Horse, and Lapu Lapu, further render these masses to an impersonal (gendered male) singular identity, which contradicts the speaker’s plaintive and tender, “each day memorizes and each night forgets their faces.” I think of a more involved, human and humanizing tribute to the city’s workers, positioned at “Zero Ground,” Ground Zero, in Martín Espada’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” in which Espada moves between “the chant of nations,” the specifics of the work and the workplaces, and the waitress who “sang to herself about a man gone.”
“Zero Ground,” we may read, not only as the cataclysmic event of September 11, 2001, but of events of historical significance--the encounter, for example, between Francia’s own grandparents, “Agatona of Aringay, Henry of Philadelphia,” resulting from the Philippine American War. Still, central to this section is September 11, in which Francia’s tone is formulaically journalistic, sweeping and generalized in its oratorical questioning. He begins “September 11, 2001”:
The blue that day held a promise.
Who would have thought the
Promise was death?
Who would have thought storied
Steel would tremble, then tumble, turn
Into torrents of fire, castles of grief?
At dawn of the day of the sun
No towers grew, no dead men or women,
No slain children arose,
For death is a permanent gift.
But this is the language of network television September 11 memorial mediated news specials; we may recall from this poem that the speaker is a witness (“My infidel mind saw but could / not grasp…”), and as one of many New York bodies, the poet mediates the text as he simultaneously distances himself from the objects, this event at which he gazes. I wish for the humanity, the compassion of Espada’s “Alabanza,” instead of Francia’s reliance upon a requisite itemizing, “Muslim and Jew, Christian and Hindu, / Buddhist, agnostic, atheist,” and in “New York Mythologies,” “Mongol, Aztec, Berber, Cherokee, Zulu // Zuni, Semite, Aborigine, Malay, Han, Viking.” Sadly, these sprawling, impersonal lists do not provide proof of individuals’ lives affected, nor individuals’ bodies broken, nor evidence of long-term post-traumatic unity. Nick Carbó writes of Francia’s September 11 poems as a “uniquely New York poetic response,” and I am inclined to disagree. The speaker, and by extension, the poet, in his distancing, appears a spectator to the city and its people. He has not claimed New York as his city, though he has read its people and its tragedies as texts.
The strength of this “Zero Ground” section lies in the poem, “A Dictionary of the Vanishing,” in its located, well-wrought metaphor of broken human bodies and broken nations. The speaker addresses a “you,” directly and sincerely, and this “you” is any one of us, signifying our own state of brokenness, and disunity. Here, his habit of distancing is momentarily suspended. His tone is both immediate and compassionate, and however morbid this broken body falling through the air, here is a haven of sense and lucidity, humanity salvaged and sobered amid the confusion and ruin of September 11. Here is where he ought to have ended “Zero Ground.”
In an all too literal change of orientation, we turn the page from portrait to landscape, to Francia’s “Meditations,” in which the poet turns his attention inward, to his own poetics, just as the rest of America suddenly (abruptly) also develops an interest in poetry post-September 11. Here, within poetry, the poet attempts to convey to us, is a place of solace, where we may possibly restore to wholeness our broken bodies:
I bleed now, exult
I bleed days and nights into being
I bleed devils who sing and angels who sin
I bleed for lives we will never have
for lies we have had to believe,
for lovers, betrayed, dark in their cold rooms.
I bleed the islands and this continent,
their flags and their tribes
But in the previous two sections of Museum of Absences, the poetry does not emotionally engage. Rather, it sweepingly and impersonally gazes, and in this third section, Francia again employs wordplay and overused phrasing which erode the power of his meditations: “Poetics? / It starts with an itch, you see, so you scratch. Psoriasis? No. Metamorphosis. / There’s a river runs through it….” “May our wars be only of words, never of swords.” In the wake of September 11, in the depth of his meditations, the speaker’s glibness and use of cliché appear yet another mediation of the poet attempting to lighten the heaviness of these times.
This section continues with his musings, which contain lovely but fleeting poetic moments: “Take a pen and copy the poems / That appear on the horizon.” Here appears the poet’s project, to write his world, as it arrives to him, sure as a sunrise. But if the body of poetry, and the poet’s project is so simple, then we as readers must question why Francia undermines his own poetic project with his constant textual mediations, wresting the poetry to appear transcendent of this real world’s violence which is so deeply a part of our American psyches.
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish, 2005), for which she received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets.